TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - The Eagle and Condor Indigenous People's Alliance, headed by JoKay Dowell, has organizing a demonstration against the Oklahoma Farm Bureau at the bureau's annual membership meeting on Oct. 21 at the Tahlequah Community Building (300 W. First Street). The Farm Bureau is a founding member of One Nation, a privately-funded organization that wants to "push back against the massive expansion of tribal authority," according to their Web site.
Jeramy Rich, the director of Public Policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, co-chairs One Nation. He spoke with Indian Country Today about the group's controversial goals. "Our single interest is that we want parity for all businesses in the state, both tribal and non-tribal," Rich said. "There is a significant competitive advantage that exists for a tribal business when it can operate right next door to a non-tribal business. A tribe can buy a piece of property in this state and operate those businesses and compete with non-tribal businesses and not pay taxes to the state and not adhere to the regulatory framework."
Rich said that he doesn't see a problem with trying to get state tax money out of federally recognized tribes. He believes the sovereign rights of tribes come under congressional authority, which is subject to change just like any other piece of legislation. "We are not trying to say that tribes shouldn't be sovereign and shouldn't be able to conduct their business with their tribal members," Rich said. "Congress is looking at collecting in different states for Internet and catalog sales because they see an inequity there; they see that problem destroying the local sales tax basis. To believe that Congress should never address tax inequities solely because of jurisdictional boundaries, we're already proving that to be a fallacy."
When asked if he sees this as a fairness issue, Rich said "Absolutely." When asked how the genocide of the Indian people fits into the fairness factor Rich said, "The problems of the past are not an excuse for us to have a situation that provides inequity for all Oklahomans. Secondly, there are a number of us who are Native Cherokees who are not tribal members and will never be allowed to be tribal members and nobody is worried about us. The history of our country, on how badly we treated Native Americans, is used as an excuse for the tribes to run a tax-free business yet for those individual descendents who are not tribal members; there is certainly no tax advantage to us." When asked if he would be on the other side of the issue if he were a tribal member, Rich said he wouldn't because many of the people in the state who can not compete with tribal businesses are Native American.
With the recent news that Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry is raising the tax rate in compacts he is offering to the tribes, some tribal leaders are looking at breaking the compacts and taking the fight to the courts. Rich says he's not worried about a backlash from the tribes. "A number of states are about to assert their rights, we've seen this in Rhode Island. These tribes' (smoke shops) are in question as to whether they are legally sited. They have to think really hard about the fact that they are conducting business, in a lot of cases, on property they shouldn't and with non-tribal members. We believe we can collect that tax, and I want to tell you that the 10th circuit court of appeals has not been real friendly to the tribes, as of late, so I want to encourage them, before they head that direction, they better look at the trend. The trend is not as friendly as it once was."
Cherokee activist JoKay Dowell says that she organized the protest because Rich is not even notifying the Farm Bureau's branch offices about One Nations' goals, even though the Farm Bureau is a founding member of the group. "He can say what he wants to say," Dowell said, "but there are several ways of qualifying who is an Indian. One is for purposes of benefits and services, another is if you are recognized by the community as an Indian, and third is culturally. I dare say that Mr. Rich is not culturally an Indian. His very actions say to me that he's ignorant of the historical relationship of the tribes and the federal government, or he couldn't make the argument he's making. One Nation's problem is that we're Indians in big corporate pockets finally getting our fair share of consumer dollars in our business development after all these years, after many generations have done without. We weren't a problem for these people when the fairness was on the other foot.
"He says it's all in the past. I'm sorry, but sovereignty is not in the past, it's very much now," Dowell continued. "Sovereignty 101: nations make treaties, states do not. The tribes are on a federal level; we don't answer to the state. Sovereignty is not something that is given to us; it's something we've always had. We were recognized internationally as sovereign nations because we signed treaties with nations of the world before there ever was a United States and before there was a State of Oklahoma, which established Indian groups as nations. Our authority to tax pre-dates that of the United States and the State of Oklahoma. If I were the average taxpayer out there, I would be very upset by what Mr. Rich is trying to do because what he's purposing has been proven over and over, all the way to the Supreme Court, a costly lesson to people like Mr. Rich and those who want to fall into his trap of lies. The tribes compact now out of their good will, not because they are forced to."